The legendary musician has now taken on the challenge of composing for a Kickstarter funded event with a community orchestra.
It’s pretty hard to know where to start when it comes to John Altman, his name may not be as instantly recognisable as John Williams’ for example but he has worked on a vast range of huge films ranging from Titanic to GoldenEye to Léon: The Professional. Also it’s not just the film industry in which he has made his mark; he has collaborated with people such as Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Amy Winehouse, Jeff Beck and Björk. He is now taking some time out from the film business in order to join The People’s Orchestra with their latest project, for which he has written an original composition.
Altman was born into a family where his four uncles on his mothers side were all musicians playing for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Dean Martin. ‘It fired me up to do that because it was so glamorous’ says Altman. But if these men and their work were first responsible for inspiring Altman it wasn’t until he went to the University of Sussex that he really took his first steps in the industry. Whilst studying English and American literature he fell into making his first album with Fleetwood Mac and then later with Nico.
For some it might be difficult to be able to fluidly move between the film and music industries but Altman says it didn’t prove to be a challenge for him. ‘I started arranging at the same time I started playing music ‘ he explains, ‘I quickly developed a reputation as an arranger and started getting work at the BBC in dramas, and then I moved through TV commercials into the movie business, initially as an arranger and orchestrator for other composers’. John’s openness and easy collaborative nature which would serve him so well throughout his career meant that one day those arranging jobs would naturally develop into even bigger things and sure enough he explains that ‘at some point, someone wasn’t available and then I was asked to write pieces too’.
That collaborative nature as well as his skill with various instruments enabled him to get Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Sting, Simon Phillips, Bob Geldof and Phil Collins, as well as others, together for The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball – an Amnesty International event which went on to inspire Live Aid. And it is this openness to trying out new things which is responsible for his involvement with The People’s Orchestra. ‘I would say it was curiosity at first’ he explains to me, ‘I was struck by the enthusiasm of everybody in the orchestra, and I was hopeful that the quality of musicianship lived up to aspirations’. But as he would discover John needn’t have worried, The orchestra may only be two years old but their passion and skill shines through with every piece they play.
‘I try to write what will enhance their part the most if writing for an artist. What I write for Rod (Stewart) or George Michael is different to Tom Jones – I’m lucky to have so many musical styles at my command.’ says Altman and it’s exactly that diversity which makes him ideal for the Orchestra’s current plans. When they put on a concert of The Snowman a while ago they discovered that many of the people in the audience did not know what the various instruments did within the piece, as many of the attendees had never been to an orchestra before. They went ahead and ran an impromptu introduction for everybody and it is this friendly community environment which so appeals to John. He explains that ‘normally I do movies so it is nice to do something more community based for a change’. John Altman, fired up by the skill he has witnessed at the group, will be helping them to run a larger version of that event by providing the original score and conducting the orchestra on the night!
With a career as interesting as Altman’s it can be easy to pin it all down to his impressive skills and his upbringing, but that’s far from the truth, often its just a matter of luck. When we were talking about his experience writing the music for GoldenEye‘s iconic tank chase sequence he said that ‘for GoldenEye I was in the right place at the right time – they needed someone to re-score it in a hurry and I had a weekend to do it’. As a Bond fan it’s lovely to hear this moment in his career described as almost being a ‘pinnacle’ by a man who has managed to work with some of the world’s most talented musicians of all time. He has remained humble and open to alternative ideas such as this Orchestra’s across his entire life and still remembers watching his uncles ‘standing up and playing in front of a band’ as ‘such an amazing thing to do’. He concludes ‘that inspired me to play music really. I never thought I would make a career of it. ‘
Many thanks to John Altman for answering a few of my questions, and do look out for a longer interview with him in the coming weeks! Be sure to check out the orchestra’s Kickstarter page by clicking either here or the banner below for more information and to check out all of the perks they are offering for those who pledge money to their cause!
As always thanks for reading and please leave your thoughts in the comment box below!